Rampant sexual violence in Syria’s grinding civil war has brutalised countless women and girls. But the rapes and degrading abuses have also targeted men, boys, trans women and non-binary people, creating a class of largely invisible, deeply traumatised survivors, according to a new report released Wednesday.
The Human Rights Watch report found that while Syrian women and girls were disproportionately subjected to sexual violence, men and boys had also been widely targeted during the conflict, by both regime and opposition forces, including ISIS.
Among them, gay and bisexual men and boys said they were often singled out for increased aggression due to their sexual orientation, with trans women – who were often perceived by their attackers as men – subjected to the same sexual violence.
Zeynep Pinar Erdem, the author of the report, told VICE News that sexual violence towards men and boys in the conflict was far more widespread than people realised.
“Sexual violence towards men and boys is definitely widespread in Syria; everyone we spoke to echoed this,” said Erdem, an international lawyer and former fellow in Human Rights Watch’s LGBT rights programme. “Due to the fear of stigma and retaliation, survivors tend not to talk about this – but this is happening.”
The report – titled “They treated us in monstrous ways” – was based on interviews with 44 survivors of sexual attacks, who described being raped, including by multiple perpetrators, and subjected to other forms of sexual violence.
The attacks took place at checkpoints – where survivors said they were singled out for increased abuse if they were perceived as effeminate – and in detention centres, where some were subjected to harrowing rapes.
One survivor, a 28-year-old man named Yousef, told Human Rights Watch that the sexual violence he experienced during his detention by Syrian intelligence ramped up dramatically once his interrogators realised he was gay.
“All the aggression was multiplied by ten, I would say. They were happily doing it,” he said. “They had a stick inside my anus, and they started saying, ‘This is what you like, don’t you like it?’”
Another survivor, a 21-year-old transgender woman named Naila, said she was repeatedly gang raped, beaten, violated with a mop and mutilated with blades during her detention in a prison cell with 30 men. She was later taken to an individual cell, where men – including other prisoners, guards and people she believed were high-ranking officials – were brought in on a daily basis for further assaults.
“At the end I lost the power to resist. I just surrendered,” she told Human Rights Watch.
The report found that the trauma of the attacks was worsened by the complete lack of medical or mental health support for survivors. Those who remained in Syria generally did not seek help, due to shame, stigma and a fear of retaliation, while refugees who had fled to Lebanon said services for male or trans survivors were virtually non-existent.
Erdem said she hoped the report would shine a light on the issue and encourage international donors to fund support services to help survivors overcome what has, until now, been a largely hidden trauma.
“The takeaway is that this is happening, and the world should not turn a blind eye,” she said. “International donors should fund support services, without diverting any funding from women and girls, which is already scarce.”